Milestone in Joplin's revival: Schools reopen

It's been nearly 86 days since a tornado devastated Joplin, Mo., and killed 160 of its residents.

But today marks a big part of its heroic cleanup effort and attempt to recover, with almost 7,800 of the city's students returning to school.

Photos: Joplin decimation in immediate aftermath of tornado

It is, reports "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge from Joplin, a significant sign of hope.

While the first day of school may not be welcomed by students in most of America, the start of classes in Joplin marks an incredible end to a summer of struggle.

How to help Joplin tornado victims

On May 22, a powerful EF-5 tornado tore through Joplin, destroying much of the city and ten of its 13 schools with 200 mph winds.

Joplin Schools Superintendent CJ Huff told Wragge, "We got a lot of people with a lot heart that, after the storm, instead of crawling in a hole and saying, 'Come help me,' they put on their work boots and gloves and started clearing debris and saving lives. And everybody has worked really hard to make this all come together."

Huff says 90 percent of Joplin's students were expected to return to class today.

Temporary classrooms have been set up in converted warehouses and a local mall.

Wragge asked Quentin Anderson, who lost both his parents in the twister and whose leg was badly injured, how he stays positive after all that happened to him.

"Well," said Anderson, "I don't let it get to me. I don't really think about it, I do think about it, but I don't at the same time."

The return to routine means a lot to Anderson, still carrying emotional and physical scars.

"There must of been something that protected me," he says, "because, if you look at all the metal and junk and stuff in our house -- I mean, that stuff didn't hit me. Because, if that stuff did hit me then, I'd be dead."

Moving past the grief over the 160 deaths in Joplin and on to a future for the city's children has been a priority, says East Middle School Principal Bud Sexton. "Getting students back to school on the 17th<' he says, "was paramount. It was what droves all of us summer."

Since the storm, Joplin has been rebuilding, and donations to the schools have arrived from around the world: books, clothing, shoes and new computers for every student.

Still, it's the camaraderie of classmates that's the most welcome gift.

When the Joplin High School football team takes the field this season, Anderson won't be able to play, though he's been named team captain.

Being around his teammates again, Anderson says, "helps a lot. I know me being there helps them, because I'm their icon now. I'm their inspiration to do great."

The high school, whose old building isn't expected to be rebuilt for another three years, has already changed its sign - to read Hope High School -- reflecting the optimism of a city determined to make its way back.

Seeing the students head back to school, Mayor Mike Woolston told Wragge, "makes us feel pretty good. The resiliency of the kids is an indication of the way they were brought up. They take that from their parents.

"The community has responded to this event in an unprecedented way, and I'm very proud of the way the entire community has pulled together. It's not just one organization or one group, it's the entire community pulling the load, and we're fortunate to be here."

Having the schools reopen, Woolston says, is "critical" to help Joplin feel as if things are returning to normal. "What may be just routine in most other communities today is a benchmark for us. It's important for the kids to get back in school so they can visit with their classmates they may not have seen since school graduation (the day the tornado hit), and it gives them an opportunity to talk about the event, to talk among themselves, and express those feelings they need to get out in order to recover psychologically."